Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pregnancy a Potential Trigger for Eating Disorders

An article in yesterday’s Courier Mail brought awareness to the issue that women in their 30s and 40s are increasingly seeking help to battle eating disorders because of pressure to be “yummy mummies”.

The Butterfly Foundation’s Julie Parker said the eating disorder support service was increasingly being contacted by older women – or their husbands and partners – for help.

She said: "Any time a person's body experiences significant physical change, such as a pregnancy or menopause, it increases the potential of them experiencing body image, self-esteem and weight-related concerns."

A recent survey conducted by Tommy’s, the baby charity, and Johnson’s Baby company, showed the number of mums-to-be more concerned about fitting into their skinny jeans than their baby’s health is rising. The survey also found one in 50 British women develops an eating disorder during pregnancy.

Having suffered from anorexia as a teenager and recovered by my early twenties, I can vouch first hand that falling pregnant was a very challenging time. Of course, it should have been a celebration of one of life’s gifts. But instead, I felt terrified because I knew that my body was going to change and there was nothing I could do about it.

The day I couldn’t fit into my favourite pair of jeans was the most confronting. I felt paralysed by fear. I tried to focus on the life growing inside me and how amazing that was. After hours of soul searching, I decided to be pragmatic about the situation and visit a maternity shop.

I felt excited about my new pregnancy clothes … until someone said to me ‘look how fat you are’. I wanted to say ‘I’m not fat I’m pregnant’ but that confidence evaded me. The second I was alone, I cried hysterically. ‘You’re fat’ is the worst thing anyone can say to someone who once suffered anorexia.

That one comment was enough to trigger a barrage of negative thoughts and emotions, and although outwardly I appeared happy and together, inside I felt terrified about gaining weight and what my body would look like after the baby was born. I had trouble looking at myself in the mirror. When I ran my hands over my swollen belly to try to connect with the growing being inside, I felt sick with fear.

I decided to revisit the reasons I ditched anorexia all those years ago. I thought about how happy I’d been when I recovered, how much joy I’d derived from life. And again, I had a choice – to embrace my pregnancy and trust that my body would do what it had to do to produce a healthy baby. Or fight it and risk the health and wellbeing of myself and my unborn child.

So I made the decision to look deeply, turn my fear and uncertainty around, and trust the process.

One of the things that helped me was a magnet that came with an item of maternity wear. It simply said: “Yes you look beautiful”. I looked at this often, reminding myself that my body was beautiful, and that I too was beautiful on the inside. I developed affirmations associated with loving and nurturing myself so that my baby would be healthy. I reminded myself of the importance of listening to the voice that speaks from my heart. I made sure I exercised in moderation to foster a positive body image. I chose to focus on the wonder of my body growing a human being, instead of incessantly worrying about the way I looked. I shifted my focus to the things that brought me joy, planning for the baby, decorating the nursery, reading pregnancy books and combing through baby names on the internet.

Years of therapy during recovery from anorexia taught me that only I had the power to change the way I thought, and it was up to me to create the experience I wanted.

I had to trust myself, trust my body and draw on my inner strength.

I became vigilant about monitoring my thoughts and feelings that were connected with my body and weight gain. I gave myself permission to just ‘be’ during the first six weeks after the baby was born, and promised myself that after the six week check up, I’d develop a routine that included time for exercise.

Allowing myself this six week sabbatical took so much pressure away. I planned to lose the weight in moderation and without a self-imposed deadline. I decided to try on my favourite pair of jeans the same time every week, knowing that one day I would fit into them again.

That day happened five months after my son was born. I felt proud of myself for not succumbing to the pressure to lose my pregnancy weight as quickly as possible. Being honest with myself and identifying my triggers throughout pregnancy and beyond, and turning them around, enriched the experience so that it became profound and positive.

I encourage any woman suffering anxieties about pregnancy weight gain to revisit the amazing process of creating a life, and listen to the voice that speaks from their heart. Remember that pregnancy is a profound experience and you are playing a leading role in the miracle of life. That is to be celebrated.

For help contact The Butterfly Foundation

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